Gender & Sexual Identity

Book Review – Making Your Own Luck Casino Women: Courage in Unexpected Places

By Susan Chandler and Jill B. Jones
ILR Pess, 2011

Reviewed by Lois Rita Helmbold


Ah, the glamour of Las Vegas. Unions are known for holding conventions there. Much of Middle America, as well as high flyers from around the globe, regard it as an ideal vacation. Retirees looking for sun, workers seeking opportunities, to say nothing of people who hope to strike it rich, all have poured into southern Nevada, making it the fastest-growing urban area in the U.S. for decades. Slot machines greet arrivals at airports and state line businesses. The mega resorts—which have come to dominate the business in recent decades the way that corporations replaced the mob—have spared nothing, except the workers, in their efforts to entice and entrap customers. Free drinks, “comped” rooms and meals, elaborate reward schemes, lavish displays and entertainment, and all-you-can-eat buffets attract people. Resort geography requires guests to move through casinos in order to access all other services: movie theaters, bowling alleys, shops, live entertainment, swimming pools, restaurants, hotel rooms, conference venues, even hotel desks. Parking garages open into casino floors. The aisles between slot machines are narrow, compelling visual as well as auditory awareness of the passers-by. Casinos notoriously lack windows and clocks, so that the twenty-four-hour business operates in a sealed vacuum, away from normal reminders of schedules and routines. More than Los Angeles, Las Vegas is la-la land. Its advertising has the power to suspend common sense. “Two million people? I thought Las Vegas was just a bunch of hotels in the desert,”one might ask. It is. But where do the people who work in those hotels live? Where do they buy their groceries? Where do their kids go to school? Las Vegas has been hyped in a way that removes everything except its presumed pleasures. “What hap- pens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” the Convention and Visitors Authority assures travelers.

Reno, “the biggest little city in the world,” also relies on gambling as a major source of income. In 1931, after mining towns became ghost towns, Nevada legalized gambling and it has been a mainstay of the economy ever since. Besides national and international visitors, California provides a steady stream of business. Busloads from the San Francisco Bay area cross the Sierra Mountains with daylong round trips, supplying Reno with seemingly unlimited numbers of gamblers. The San Diego and Los Angeles sprawls offer quick access to Las Vegas via freeways whose desert speeds are frequently 90 mph, an easy weekend trip. Among the hardest-working women who provide casino pleasures—visible and invisible—are the housekeepers, once primarily black women recruited from the rural South, today increasingly Latinas flee- ing repression and poverty. They are also leading union activists. “You have to do it for the people coming.” This explanation of their involvement by Geoconda Arguello Kline, president of the Las Vegas Culinary Workers Union, once a hotel maid, is the title of the first chapter of Casino Women. Susan Chandler and Jill B. Jones have written a respectful and admiring account of the mostly black and immigrant activists in Nevada’s so-called “gaming” industry, whom they contrast with women managers and unorganized card dealers. They situate their subjects in a larger context: a history that has changed from mob dominance to corporatization, globalization, and managers’ efforts to obtain complete control, whether on the gambling floor or in the state legislature.

Relying on interviews and focus groups with casino workers, managers, activists, union officials, and related professionals, Chandler and Jones present a striking, and bifurcated, portrait of casino women. Their initial focus, and clearly their respect, lies with working-class women from both the back and the front of the house, housekeepers and cocktail waitresses, but their scope is broad enough to include non-union activists, card dealers, managers, and others whose stories underlie Nevada’s major industry. Including workers in Las Vegas and Reno, most of whom they have carefully shielded with anonymity and whose life details they have fabricated, they paint a complex portrait of women in the gambling industry, a uniquely labor-intensive business. Las Vegas boasts more than 150,000 hotel rooms. The Culinary Union, Local 226, an affiliate of UNITE HERE, is a success story, the largest (sixty thousand) local in a right-to-work state in the U.S.

The women who struggled to build the Culinary Workers count not only their ability  to support their families adequately, but their increased sense of self, their recognition of their own leadership abilities and skills, and their improvement of their communities among the most valuable results of their activism. As illustrated in Stripped and Teased: Tales from Las Vegas Women (Bal-Maiden Films, 1998), Las Vegas has been the only city in the U.S. where a single mother without a college education could buy her family a home with a swimming pool, thanks to successful union organizing. The struggle continues. Station Casinos, the biggest local casino chain, found guilty by the National Labor Relations Board of breaking federal labor laws eighty-eight times, has appealed. On May Day 2012, activists at Station had just ended a week’s fast for the right to organize freely.

Having supported myself through a couple of degrees as a waitress and maid/housekeeper, and having taught at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas for nine years, to say nothing of being a scholar of working-class women and an activist, I brought high expectations to this book. I was not disappointed.

There is no doubt that the authors’ sympathy and solidarity rest with the working class and its activists. The authors, white women and social work professors, identify with and admire the black Southern migrant and Latin American immigrant women activists. Chandler and Jones characterize the sense of family developed by hourly workers as a sustaining force in their struggles, individual and collective. They contrast them with dealers, who are highly controlled and under constant surveillance at work. They are also unorganized, depressed, and apparently without group identity, solidarity, or cohesiveness. They judge that this sense of community is also missing in the lives of women managers, who have “crossed over to the other side.” Although the authors note that managers earning $150,000 annually are closer in income to cocktail waitresses than to the millions of dollars bestowed on CEO’s, managers identify with those above them, not those below.

Among the authors’ heroes is Darlene Jespersen, a highly praised Reno Harrah’s white bartender of two decades who declined to wear make-up when the company decided to “brand” employees as well as objects. Fired in this right-to-work state, Darlene filed suit, lost, then appealed to the liberal Ninth Circuit Court. Despite backing by Lambda Legal and numerous precedents in appearance cases, she lost again, illustrating corporations’ often successful efforts to achieve total control. Hattie Canty—a black self-described “Southern country girl,” mother of ten, housekeeper, organizer, and former union president—claims, “It’s much easier to organize women than it is to organize men . . . . We know what to do and that’s to take care of responsibility” (p. 58). Culinary organizing has been labor intensive, relying on one-on-one discussions, including visits to workers’ homes. In Las Vegas, casino women are mostly unionized; in Reno, they are not. Where workers lack union protection and wages, they typically work a second, often full-time, job.

Noise and tobacco smoke are major environmental hazards for casino workers, in addition to the musculoskeletal strains experienced by dealers standing through eight-hour shifts; by housekeepers lifting, pushing, moving, and shoving; and by servers balancing twenty-five pounds on a single wrist while maneuvering in high heels. Desk workers can easily ignore or forget the physical as well as the mental strains of working-class jobs. Accounts of bloody feet at the end of a shift, lungs blackened by secondary smoke, and pill-popping just in order to do the job punctuate these stories.

The book’s subtitle, Courage in Unexpected Places, reveals the authors’ own former assumptions. Working-class women are rarely seen as leaders, as heroes; rather, they are drudges, busy working full time at a job and at home, too busy and not smart enough for political or intellectual awareness. This study demolishes racist, sexist, classist stereotypes. It also confronts the reader with the realities of non-unionized workers in a right-to-work state: pangs of hunger, fears of eviction, surviving in a state that ranks in the bottom five on most indices of well-being, where private affluence trumps public sector poverty.

I wish the authors had discussed the immigrant rights movement (very strong in Las Vegas), the dramatic loss of jobs during the Great Recession (Nevada has the highest unemployment and foreclosure rates), and the politics of UNITE HERE. But that would be my book, not theirs. I sometimes despair that Las Vegas students’ and academics’ apparently inexhaustible interest in sex workers enables them to ignore the far more numerous, but less glamorous, women who keep casinos and hotels running. I am thrilled to read an account of the fruits of those women’s collective struggle. In an economy increasingly devoted to service, there are many lessons for all of us in this book.